This blog is an extract from the original one published over on the Museum of Fire's blog.
This story was compiled the Museum of Fire Heritage Team last year and it is a topic I have personally spent a lot of time researching. As more records are uncovered the complete story is becoming more vivid. I hope to share more about the WFA in the future.
In response to the mounting possibility of invasion the Women’s Fire Auxiliary (WFA), a division of the Women’s Australian National Service (WANS) which oversaw the training of women in various roles such as ambulance and motor appliance mechanics and drivers was created. This movement was initially driven by Lady Wakehurst, the wife of the then Governor of NSW. Lady Wakehurst was elected president of the organisation and training was conducted by the officers of the NSWFB (NSW Fire Brigade, today known as FRNSW).
The program was restricted to Sydney at first, with enlisted women undertaking an eight week training course which covered air raid procedures, how to deal with an incendiary bomb and what to do if there was a fire in the home. The course also covered rescue procedures, first aid and watchroom practices for fire stations. In effect these women were being trained much the same as Probationary Firefighters, however the Probationary Firefighters did most of their training ‘on the job’ while the women were undertaking crash courses in these procedures as a wartime measure to ensure they would be ready to assist the national crisis, should the need arise.
Upon completing their training the women of the WFA were assigned to their local fire station where they attended one night of drills each week (90 minutes) and spent one night on watch duty.
Prior to 1942 all WFA members had to also be members of WANS, however after the armed forces opened up to women’s units the number of women joining WANS and the WFA decreased so the restriction on membership and on age (initially all WFA had to be 30-45 years) was loosened.
Pictured Above: Women from the Women’s Fire Auxiliary were expected to undertake watchroom duties at their local fire station at least one night each week as shown here, c. 1944.
The first women completed their training in 1941 and by the following year there were over 600 women enrolled in the WFA. As a show of their capabilities and to showcase their training, a WFA demonstration and testing day was held at Rushcutters Bay on 19 July 1942. Almost all of the women in the WFA took part with around 3,000 spectators watching.
The program proved so successful in Sydney that it was extended across the rest of the state, especially targeting key strategic locations such as Lithgow, Wollongong and Wagga Wagga (the first three WFA to be established outside of Sydney). The training for the WFA outside of Sydney was conducted over a less-intense, longer period of time with their instruction provided by the local Sub-Station Officers and Senior Firefighters.
By 1945 it was estimated that there were around 800 trained members of the WFA across NSW, however as the war drew to a close the WFA disbanded almost immediately and the women involved returned to their original roles within society and the family home.
The WFA also fulfilled a charity role, raising over £3,000 (approximately $218, 700 today) to purchase a canteen for the use of the NSWFB. This canteen is now on display in the Museum.
To read more about the canteen checkout this blog by the Museum of Fire: Sustaining the Firies - The Mobile 'Canteen' (1942 Ford 21W)